Sunday, 17 June 2012

Film Review: Prometheus

Certificate: 15 (sci-fi violence including some intense images, and brief language)
Directed By: Ridley Scott
Cast: Noomi Rapace, Michael Fassbender, Charlize Theron, Logan Marshall-Green, Guy Pearce, Idris Elba
Budget: $130 million
Runtime: 124 minutes
Trailer: Watch

Potential Spoilers

When archeologists discover ancient artefacts featuring the same pictograms they quickly deduce that they are star-maps. Funded by the Weyland Corporation, the vessel Prometheus embarks on a voyage to planet LV-233 in hope of finding answers to mankind's biggest questions, only to soon discover that maybe ignorance was bliss.

Foremost this is a prequel set in 2093 - around 125 years before the events in Alien. In Prometheus Ridley Scott has gone to great lengths in filling the prurient gaps raised in his original 1979 epic, most notably those surrounding the mysterious 'Space Jockey'. Yet while answering one set of questions about the race that have since become known as the 'Engineers', Prometheus probes into grander propositions regarding man's place in the universe. The film begins like an episode of Ancient Aliens, spinning yarns familiar to those who have read Eric von Däniken's cult classic, Chariots of the Gods. Tales of ancient astronauts who created man and guided our development preoccupy the first part of the film, raising philosophical questions over our purpose and the nature of existence. While Scott's familiar, icky, gritty tropes of the Alien franchise do inevitably rear their malevolent heads, Prometheus is very much more concerned in providing dread via its suggestive sagacious denouements. Rather than the toothy xenomorphs and face huggers providing the scares, it is Scott's postulations on the answers to some of our most fundamental questions which provide the real consternation here.

And yet for all the philosophical pondering Prometheus promises to pose, it certainly doesn't feel that Scott remains committed to the more cerebral ideas pledged in the opening. By the final third it would appear these grand themes are eschewed in favour of ramping up the action where questions end up outweighing answers. With Lost writer Damon Lindelof onboard one might not be too surprised that explanations come at a premium, but then again this might also be the point. Lead character Dr Elizabeth Shaw (Rapace), Ripley's spiritual predecessor, also happens to be a woman of faith. It is this faith, particularly in the judeo-christian notion that life is special and unique, which Scott seeks to test in what can only be described as a cacophony of nihilism. If, as Prometheus posits, life can be created in a test-tube, then the idea of 'God's Children' seems to quickly dissipate. This is the main philosophical crux of the film; that if we are to accept that nothing means anything, then what is the point? Indeed, even our questions regarding the order of things become meaningless. But it is here where Shaw's faith might provide the most insightful answers to life, the universe and everything. In spite of the terse inquisition Prometheus uses to assault human existentialism, Shaw curtly explains "It's what I choose to believe". Scott intriguingly suggests that faith is still very much relevant when it comes to understanding the cosmos, even when science has all but disproved any ethereal sentiments. It is this which keeps Shaw going despite what reality has to say otherwise.

As one might be able to tell, Prometheus is far wordier than the original Alien. In many ways, it actually couldn't be further from the dank, claustrophobic corridors of the Nostromo. In general, there isn't the same feeling of foreboding which were hallmarks of the original quadrilogy. Sets here range from spacious to enormous, the Prometheus' pressurised modules well lit while the underground bio-research freak show under the the pyramid/dirt mount structure thingy so cavernous that there's never a sense of anything popping out behind a corner for a cheap thrill. Yes, there is a creative reimagining of that gut-buster scene involving a sexist medi-lab, and Scott certainly flirts with the familiar shock tactics in all their updated twenty-first century glory, but they never define Prometheus in the same way they did Alien. Rather than any sense of crippling fear, Prometheus' tone is actually rather impassive. However, while this fits with the film's themes of nothingness, it does not necessarily make for a good movie. Certainly, there's no sense of urgency in anything the crew do, traveling between the ship and temple mound almost aimlessly. We never quite know what any of them are doing or why, there merely to make up the numbers. The first half of the film establishes how miserable and unsociable everybody is, which instantly says something of their inescapable fate. The potential for interesting characters with contributive dialogue are instead earmarked for castigation, clearly displayed by their B-movie archetypes. We end up caring little for their survival, which is in stark contrast to our feelings toward Ripley and the poor souls on the Nostromo. Thank the 'Engineers' then for David, the one robot who brings any meaning to proceedings.

All this meaning of life stuff previously mentioned is most deftly displayed in Fassbender's supposedly emotionless aryan android. It is he who provides the link between the crew and Prometheus' larger themes, a microcosm of the philosophical battles being waged by his creators with the universe. Draped in egotism worthy of any real boy (or girl), David displays seemingly insignificant human characteristics at first. He narcissistically combs his hair to perfection, later expressing childlike wonder before evolving complex motivations to betray his fellow crew members. Given this, one begins to question whether this unit has a soul. When we glimpse David watching his favourite movie, Lawrence Of Arabia, we see the infamous scene where T.E. Lawrence extinguishes a flame with his fingers, to which he is asked "doesn't it hurt?". He retorts "The trick, William Potter, is not minding it hurts". This one small scene is pivotal. If humans are able to 'switch off' pain as a robot might, then what does this say of David who can do the same? As Holloway (Marshall-Green) ponders man's existence, David asks "why do you think your people made me?". Holloway replies "we made you because we could". David's riposte is cutting. "Can you imagine how disappointing that would be for you to hear the same thing from your creator?". What does this imply for us? Our purpose? Does David's creation not imply that we are the Gods now? The 'supermen' that Nietzsche spoke of?

The main problem with Prometheus is that it never grasps to any intrinsic tenet other than the barrage of overwhelming nihility. And yet while it might be happy to revel in its own parochial cognition, you might walk away having expected something different. Something a bit more base, like Alien or Aliens. When one thinks of Ridley Scott's 1979 original it's usually dark narrow hallways with something covered in ectoplasm waiting to jump out. Prometheus toys with the idea of creepy crawly nasties and tantalisingly teases the audience with them, but Scott holds back. Sure, accusations of cliched usage might have incurred, but in a strange way you kinda miss the xenomorphic lug. And by the end, instead of capitalising on the amount of fear factor at Scott's disposal, or even on its own phrenic allusions, we are instead left with frenetic chaos to satiate the Michael Bay junkies.

Moreover, it is difficult to ascertain whether Prometheus is successful in what it wants to convey. Certainly it does itself no favours by attempting to maintain the middle ground between pleasing philosophical pondering and action spectacle - something which has been the bane of many sci-fi movies. No doubt the primary concern is clearly its 'philosophical horror', and yet while Prometheus certainly raises some interesting quandaries it is perhaps disappointing that it doesn't really attempt to pass its own judgements. I suppose in that way then it might have had the effect it wanted on me as I left the cinema, shrugging my shoulders and merely uttering "meh".